The first thing you should know about the Tribeca is that it's a big SUV, as big or bigger than a Nissan Murano or Toyota Highlander or even a Ford Explorer. It seats up to seven passengers.
The first thing you're likely to notice, however, is the styling, particularly that grille. It looks like something from an Alfa Romeo. Subaru's new chief designer came from Alfa, but he told us the grille was already set in stone when he arrived. The design of the Tribeca doesn't please everyone, but seems to grow on some people with time.
TriBeCa is a trendy, upscale neighborhood between New York's Soho and Lower Manhattan districts. It isn't cheap real estate. Nor is the Subaru Tribeca cheap transportation. In case you haven't noticed, all Subaru models are somewhat pricey, but we think they offer a lot of value in terms of technology, handling, foul-weather capability and dependability. For its part, the Tribeca is competitive in the class, especially given the lengthy list of features with which it comes standard, much of which are optional or not even available elsewhere.
Extensive driving in Northern California revealed the Tribeca to be a joy to drive, comfortable and practical. In short, we'd list it as a buy. That's a strong recommendation, given that we think highly of the Highlander and Murano.
Subaru B9 Tribeca 5-Passenger ($30,695); B9 Tribeca 5-Passenger Limited ($32,295); B9 Tribeca 7-Passenger ($32,395); B9 Tribeca 7-Passenger Limited ($33,895)
Moving past the odd grille arrangement, there is an undeniable aero-sleekness to the flow of the various surface planes and scupltings. Headlights are integrated into the leading edges of the front fenders. In plan view, the front end's curvature can be seen to ease the movement of the Tribeca through the air. The steeply raked windshield and A-pillars pull the eye up and over the tall glass house to a spoiler laid atop an acutely angled back window.
Body side panels are mostly vertical, not quite slab-like, their expanse broken by mild fender blisters circling properly proportioned tires and wheels. Beginning at the trailing edge of the front door and even with the door handles, a soft crease grows as it moves rearward, giving the rear portions substance before ending in the wraparound taillights. An understated character line etched into the doors and running between the wheel arches draws attention to the matte-black rocker panels and subtly reminds the observant of the Tribeca's 8.4-inch ground clearance.
As unsatisfied as we are with the Tribeca's front end, the back end leaves us wondering what exactly the theme was supposed to be there as well. The top half, above the continuation of the waist-high side crease, comprising the rear window and spoiler and looking rather light and airy, looks as if it came from a different vehicle than the bottom half, comprising most of the liftgate, the license plate surround, the bumper and lower trim panel and looking somewhat ponderous. Perhaps it's a consequence of having to package sufficient interior room for a third-row seat, but like the front end, it's a departure from the Subaru look we've come to know and will require some acclimation. And as fondly as we recall the previous century's hot rod era, the dual exhausts don't quite fit.
By the way, the B9 designates the platform. Why did Subaru find it necessary to plug this into the name? We didn't have much luck getting that out of them. So we'll just call it the Tribeca, a name that goes well with Forester, Outback and Impreza.
Right off, we didn't have to climb up into it, despite its positioning as a hybridization of wagon, minivan and sport utility. Rather, we simply opened the door and sat down. The relatively high seating position allowed us to check traffic several cars ahead, and outward visibility is marred only by seemingly overly thick A-pillars. More than once, we overlooked a pedestrian or another car at an intersection because the pillar blocked our vision. We expect, though, that this is something we'd learn to work around.
Once buckled in, all the controls fell right to hand, and the gauges and panels tasked with communicating important information did so quite naturally. Well, maybe the fuel and coolant temperature gauges weren't completely intuitive, tucked away in the lower outboard corners of the instrument cluster and utilizing LEDs in lieu of the analog style. But we found it hard to imagine ways to improve the remainder, including the large, easily scanned tachometer and speedometer.
Beyond the bits and pieces, the organic, almost-wholesome sweep of the dash as it flows into the door panels creates cocoon-like comfort zones for front seat occupants. Arms and hands rest naturally on nicely textured surfaces with the requisite buttons and levers where they should be. Steering wheel-mounted supplemental controls are styled into the sweep of the wheel's spokes. The shift lever's SportShift slot, which allows the driver to manually select the desired gear, is properly placed to the driver's side of the primary gate.
The rounded center stack extends into the cockpit for easy access to its controls and features. The primary audio control knob is centered within ready reach of the driver and front-seat passenger. The heating and ventilation controls are really cool, with big knobs that feature digital readouts. The front passenger's air conditioning temperature control knob is thoughtfully positioned facing the passenger. As an aside, while the stereo handles MP3 media, it isn't strictly designed with iPod compatibility. For the truly dedicated, however, an auxiliary jack in the upper left rear quarter panel for CD players will accommodate input from iPods, although control of play sequence has to remain with the iPod. An elaborate information screen and navigation system display is centered in the upper half of the dash with controls that are accessible to both the driver and front passenger.
The second row of seats is one of the most flexible we've seen in terms of configurations and range of adjustments, as we learned on routine trips to grocery store, post office and just generally running around town for a week. The rear rows of seats are more bench-like with shallower side bolsters for easier ingress and egress and space conservation. The second row is more comfortable than it looks, however, something we discovered during a day of driving between California's Central Valley and the Bay Area. The seatbacks can be reclined and we discovered two adults can be quite comfortable back there.
Getting in and out of the third row on seven-passenger models isn't easy for adults; it's best left to the younger set.
The glove box holds more than gloves, with space for the owner's manual, cell phones, garage door remotes, etc. Two cup holders are concealed beneath a well-damped cover in the center console aft of the shift lever. Rearward of this is the padded center armrest covering a respectably sized storage bin. Two more cup holders can be found in the fold-down middl
Not that it didn't impress from the get go, which was south of Market Street in San Francisco. From there, through the streets and across the Golden Gate, up U.S. 101 a ways, then over to the coast and up to a lunch stop along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay, the Tribeca never disappointed. Actually, it quite impressed. Multi-lane, divided highways passed under its impressively quiet tires as smoothly and as rapidly as did winding, switchback-laden two-lanes.
Credit for the smooth ride goes to the high degree of refinement Subaru's engineers have achieved in development of the horizontally opposed, six-cylinder engine. As with other SUVs, there is some road vibration. Credit for the Tribeca's nimble handling goes to the relatively low center of gravity that comes with that essentially flat engine placed low in the chassis. The Tribeca is no lightweight at 4,400 pounds, and it feels bigger than it looks, but it handles surprisingly well. By way of comparison, the Tribeca's track, which is the distance between the tires side to side, is fully two inches narrower than the Nissan Murano's track, and they're the same height. And the Tribeca tracked through the same series of tight, left-right-left transitions as the Murano with less body lean and at measurably higher rates of travel. The steering is accurate, though a little slow.
Passing power came on immediately with only slight pressure on the gas. Shifts up and down were managed almost invisibly; even when executed manually through the SportShift, there was only the slightest interruption in the energy flow. Speaking of the manual characteristics of the SportShift, the Tribeca will shift up a gear at engine redline; it will not, however, drop down a gear without the driver tapping the lever forward. Fuel economy isn't a standout feature, however. The Tribeca earns an EPA rating of just 18/23 mpg City/Highway.
Brake feel was not ideal, or at least not to our liking; it wasn't truly linear, but somewhat spongy. And the steering column was offset a smidgen to the right, toward the centerline of the vehicle. We're used to this awkwardness in GM vehicles but were surprised to find it in a Subaru.
When our time with the Tribeca came to an end, we were sorry to see it go. Not in the same way we sometimes are with a Porsche, a Dodge Ram SRT/10 or a BMW, but because we really could see ourselves owning the Tribeca and being quite content with life as a one-car household.
The 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca is at once unlike and like other Subarus. It has all the right feel of control and dexterity, plus impressive hauling capacity for people and things. And the engineering technology delivering all this right stuff is thoroughly debugged and proven. All that's left to prove is whether people will pay what the Tribeca costs and whether they can get used to that face.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco, the coastal roads north of the Bay Area and California's Central Valley, with Mitch McCullough in the wine country.